Everything you wanted to know about the French parliamentary election but were afraid to ask
No sooner have they elected a new president, than the French must return to the polls to elect a new National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. The first round of the 2012 French legislative election is on 10 June, the second a week later on 17 June. How does it work?
Why’s it taking place?
For the third time running the election follows a presidential election. That’s because, although the French president is powerful, he has to have parliament on his side if he wants to deliver on all his promises and the presidential mandate has been shortened to five years, the same as the mandate of a parliament.
Thanks to elections just before the presidential poll, François Hollande’s Socialists already control the upper house, the Senate. But Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP still controls the National Assembly. The new president and his allies now want to take control of the lower house and form a government (the present one is only interim).
Traditionally the president takes the leading role in foreign policy, while the prime minister and his cabinet run domestic policy, although the model was not strictly adhered under Sarkozy’s peripatetic presidency. Apart from his pledge to renegotiate the eurozone treaty and pull French troops out of Afghanistan, Hollande’s most important campaign promises concerned jobs and living standards in crisis-hit France, so he badly needs a left majority in this poll.
Why two rounds?
Voters vote for the candidate of their choice from an often-sizeable list in the first round.
If one candidate wins over 50 per cent and at least 25 per cent of those on the register have voted, he or she is elected. This happened in 109 seats in the last parliamentary election in 2007.
Otherwise, any candidate who wins the support of more than 12.5 per cent of registered voters goes through to the second round.
This is where it gets complicated.
Most often two candidates make it this far but sometimes three of four make the grade, leading to “triangular” or “quadrangular” contests. That means that a left-wing candidate may be elected in a constituency where the majority has voted right, or vice versa, because the majority camp’s vote has been split.
There are 44.3 million people on the electoral register. Although the French are relatively assiduous voters, not everyone will be interested enough to cast their ballot. The abstention rate in the presidential election second round was 19.65 per cent. The campaign has failed to kick up the media storm that the presidential one attracted, so there is the risk of a lower turnout. On the other hand, one’s député (MP) is a bit closer to home that the president of the republic.
French citizens living abraod or in some overseas territories will vote early on 2-3 June or 9-10 June.
For the first time ever, 11 MPs are to be elected to represent French citizens living outside France. Until now they were only represented in the Senate. They can vote by internet, leading to fears over security.
- There are 6,611 candidates, only 2,641 (40 per cent) of whom are women.
- There are 577 seats.
- There are 44 officially recognised parties.
- Some candidates are independents, including dissidents who failed to win their party’s nomination and are now standing against it.
- The Socialist Party has an electoral non-aggression pact with the Greens (EELV) but not with the Left Front, whose presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, won 11.10 per cent.
- The far-right Front National (FN), whose leader Marine Le Pen won 17.9 per cent in the presidential poll, has no electoral pact and hopes to take votes off the UMP.
- The liberal Modem, whose leader François Bayrou won 9.13 per cent in the presidential poll, has no electoral pact with anyone.
- Unless parliament is dissolved the newly elected MPs will hold their seats for five years.
What is cohabitation?
If the president’s party fails to win an absolute majority (unlikely) and is unable to pull together a coalition with smaller parties (more likely), he must invite his political opponents to form a government.
In France this is known as cohabitation and it has happened three times:
- 1986-1988: Right-winger Jacques Chirac was prime minister under Socialist president François Mitterrand;
- 1993-1995: Right-winger Edouard Balladur was prime minister under Socialist president François Mitterrand;
- 1997-2002: Socialist Lionel Jospin was prime minister under right-wing president Jacques Chirac.
This did not lead to the kind of legislative paralysis seen in the US with the Republican-dominated Congress confronting Democrat President Barack Obama. Either that’s because the two major parties are responsible and share “republican values” or because the difference between them is not as great as they sometimes make out, depending on your point of view.
If the Socialists and their allies fail to win enough seats this year, Hollande will have to ask the UMP, or just conceivably the FN or Modem, to form a government and put up with a cohabitation with the right.
What are the issues?
Jobs, jobs and jobs.
If they are not among the 10 per cent of the population who don’t have one, French voters are worried that they or a member of their family might soon find themselves unemployed or that their income, pension rights or working conditions might fall victim to the current economic crisis.
In the first weeks of his presidency Hollande has pushed for growth in Europe, while his government has tried to hold back a predicted wave of redundancies at home. Cuts in the pay of the president and ministers and a much-publicised modest presidential style have been well received, as have moves to limit public-sector bosses’ pay, although some are asking what sacrifices will be demanded of ordinary families once the voting is finally over.
On the right, the UMP is claiming that the crisis will make it impossible for Hollande to keep his promises but, at national level at least, has made less of subjects like immigration, Islam and law and order after its failure to neutralise the Front National in the presidential election.
The FN, for its part, continues to harp on its favourite themes, while adding globalisation to its long-established bêtes noires of Brussels bureaucrats and immigrants. After its good showing in the presidential election, it hopes to win seats in the assembly for the first time since 1986. That's not guaranteed, however. Jean-Marie Le Pen made it through to the second round in 2002 but the party won no seats in the subsequent legislative vote.
Who’s going to win?
That’s what we’d all like to know.
Opinion polls show the Socialist Party and its allies winning, especially thanks to the likely number of three-way second rounds with Front National candidates splitting the right-wing vote.
UMP morale seems to have suffered a major blow in the presidential election and, with the former president licking his wounds in Morocco, party bigwigs have taken to infighting with their eyes on the far-off 2017 presidential election.
But there could be a shock.
A 2010 redrawing of constituency boundaries favoured the right.
The Socialist campaign seems to be relying on the publicity generated by their first days in office rather than work on the ground, and the party is not making any big promises in these cash-strapped days.
With such a low-key campaign, some voters are not even aware of the date of polling day, while others may feel they have done their duty voting in a new president.
So there is still a danger of a low turnout, which means that the result is not in the bag for François Hollande and friends.